by Art Laffin
the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House
To begin, I am compelled to express heartfelt gratitude to the OREPA Community for the incredible loving hospitality extended to all who came to the trial. From arranging where people would sleep, to preparing evening meals, to organizing transportation, drop-offs and pick-ups, the OREPA Community pulled out the stops to accommodate EVERYONE. Thanks be to God for the OREPA Community and for their steadfast peace witness at Y-12 spanning many years. This witness has been, and continues to be, a great beacon of life and hope for our human family.
The community of faith and resistance that gathered from around the U.S. and from Tennessee to stand with the TNP was a remarkable gift beyond measure. Each day the main courtroom used for the trial and a nearby overflow courtroom were filled to capacity. This outpouring of support demonstrated to the court, the jury, the media, the city of Knoxville and the nation that Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg were not alone in their desire to see the swords of our time hammered into plowshares.
Unsurprisingly, what emerged during the government’s case and throughout the trial was the repeated claim by the prosecutors Mr. Theodore and Ms. Kirby that to merely go onto the Y-12 site was obstructing the national defense. Further, because the TNP were able to cut through fences and get to the Highly Enriched Uranium Facility (HEUF), this action had negatively affected the credibility of Y-12 and the U.S. nuclear deterrent, according to government witness, Steve Erhart, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration manager at Y-12. During his testimony Erhart described how Y-12 developed and processed uranium for the first atomic bomb and has been involved in the production of nuclear weapons ever since. Y-12 makes uranium parts for nuclear warheads, dismantles old weapons and is the primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium in the U.S., he said. Under cross-examination, Erhart admitted that the use of U.S. nuclear weapons would be “devastating,” similar to the death and destruction caused by U.S. nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Erhart also acknowledged that the TNP action exposed the numerous security failures of Y-12. A report by the DOE’s inspector general said Y-12 security failures included broken detection equipment, poor response from security guards and insufficient federal oversight of private contractors running the facility.
The testimony of Kirk Garland, the first security guard on the scene was illuminating. Upon seeing the early morning witness and encountering Sr. Megan, Greg and Mike, he stated “I knew what I had.” Despite the fact that the TNP were in a deadly force zone, he knew from his experience of working at Rocky Flats and Pantex nuclear weapons facilities that they were peace activists and did not feel compelled to use deadly force. He was faulted for this by his superiors and was subsequently fired. It was pointed out several times during the trial that Garland was really the scapegoat for this embarrassing security breach.
Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg spoke movingly about why they acted and what they did, taking full responsibility for their actions. Sr. Megan conveyed that she went to Y-12 because all life is imperiled by nuclear weapons and that she sought to bring healing, forgiveness and transformation there. “My regret was I waited 70 years,” she said. “Y-12 is manufacturing that which can only cause death.” She also spoke of how her uncle, who had visited Nagasaki six weeks after the bombing, had a great impact on her. And she was able to offer a powerful reading of the TNP action statement. Mike shared that he was complicit in committing war crimes as a soldier during the U.S. war in Vietnam and Cambodia. He said he was compelled to emulate the example given by Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day and that it was his “intent to do God’s will.” Greg, who gave both opening and closing statements, shared that he, too, was a veteran who was trained to fight and win a nuclear war. He said that nuclear weapons provide an illusion of security and that the U.S. was in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed. He also characterized their action as a “miracle,” when explaining how they were able to get to the HEUF. In his closing statement he illustrated what the good Samaritan parable really means for us today and that like the emperor of the fairy tale, the DOE is naked and does not have real security. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Greg declared that real security comes “when we have justice for all the nations.”
Ann Wright, a former career military officer and diplomat who is now a peace activist, testified as an expert witness in national security. Referring to her experience in once helping to oversee the transfer of enriched uranium from Kazakistan to the Oak Ridge Y-12 facility she underscored how dangerous nuclear material is and expressed her shock at the flawed internal security at Y-12.
One moment of tragic irony in the trial for me occurred when the prosecution was questioning Retired General Rodney Johnson, who is now in charge of maintenance at Y-12. As he was itemizing the expenses for “decontaminating” the exterior of the HEUF building due to blood being poured and messages being spray-painted on it, nothing was ever said about the highly enriched uranium contained inside the building and how this substance could destroy life and cause irreversible contamination of the environment. It was as if this lethal material was invisible and that this was simply a storage building like any other. This was the kind of psychic numbing–the utter failure to come to terms with the truth– that was operative throughout the trial.
Two other special moments that occurred during the trial involved the acknowledgment of two deceased friends and peacemakers. Tom Lewis, a member of the Catonsville Nine and plowshares activist was mentioned because his blood, which had been frozen for use in a future plowshares action, was used in this action. And Fr. Dick McSorley, SJ was mentioned in the testimony since a quote from him, “It’s A Sin To Build A Nuclear Weapon,” was left at the Y-12 site. It was a beautiful occasion to see the joy on the face of Sr. Rosemary McSorley, Dick’s sister, who was present at the trial, when her brother’s name was invoked.
In Greg’s opening statement he recited from one of Mike’s favorite scripture passages: If today you hear God’s voice harden not your hearts.(Psalm 95) Despite the irrefutable truths that were spoken in court by Sr. Megan, Greg and Mike, and their outstanding legal team of Bill Quigley, Frank Lloyd, Chris Irwin, Bobbie Hudson and Anabel Dwyer, about the immorality and illegality of nuclear weapons, and the urgent need to bring about a disarmed world, the jury could not bring itself to accept their defense. Psychic numbing prevailed. God’s law was not heeded. And international law and elements of the necessity defense, which had been previously ruled by Judge Thapar as inadmissible evidence, was not deemed relevant. Thus, the TNP were really convicted for rejecting the sinful policy of deterrence and for exposing and nonviolently resisting an empire which has as its centerpiece the nuclear idol.
On May 9, the morning after Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg were convicted and jailed, our community gathered outside the court before attending a special hearing to see if our now imprisoned friends would be eligible for release. I offered a selection from Dan Berrigan (whose 92nd birthday was the same day) to help put into perspective and gain some deeper insight into what we experienced in court and how that is a reflection of daily life in a nuclear empire. In Testimony: The Word Made Fresh, Dan writes the following in the chapter titled ‘An Ethic of Resurrection’:
…The ethic of the body given, the blood outpoured! The act led straight to the scaffold and to that “beyond” we name for want of a better word, resurrection. We have not, in this century or any other, improved on this. More, being equally fearful of living and dying, we have yet to experience resurrection, which I translate, “the hope that hopes on.”
A blasphemy against this hope is named deterrence, or Trident submarine, or star wars, or preemptive strike, or simply, any nuclear weapon. These are in direct violation of the commandment of Jesus: “Your ancestors said: ‘An eyes for an eyes,’ but I say to you, offer no violent resistance to evil. Love your enemies.” That is why we speak again and again of 1980 and all the Plowshares actions since, how some of us continue to break the demonic clutch on our souls of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumors of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of despair. For us, all these repeated arrest, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied and ethic of resurrection.
Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of the silva oscura, the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection.
May I say we have not been disappointed.
Filled with a spirit of resurrection hope, we all sang together: “We Shall Not Be Moved” before entering the court.
When Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg were brought into the courtroom in shackles we sang: “Sacred the Land.” What we then witnessed during this detention hearing was a legal squabble about whether Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg can now be treated under the violent crimes act and deemed ineligible for pre-sentencing release. Judge Thapar said he felt “boxed in” by Congress because no differentiation was made between peace activists and terrorists in applying this new statute concerning the destruction of national defense materials. Has the judge become so enslaved by the law that he can’t exercise his own discretion and make a distinction between peacemakers and violent terrorists? The judge still has an opportunity to act in the interest of justice at sentencing and in his final ruling on whether the sabotage charge should, in fact, be dismissed. Still, the prosecution continues to act vindictively against the TNP and insists that the national defense was injured and obstructed by our three friends. And so Sr. Megan, Mike and Greg were initially ordered jailed and to be brought back for another hearing in two weeks. However, on May 10 Judge Thapar issued a new ruling saying that the TNP will be detained through their September 23 sentencing. This is because the offense that they are convicted of carries a maximum prison term of ten years or more and thus falls under the “federal crime of terrorism.” This ludicrous assertion is a blatant misuse of the law and an attempt to mischaracterize and distort the nonviolent intent of the Transform Now Plowshares. The truth of their action stands on its own.